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Full of fresh vegetables, wonderous textures, and a range of spices, Vietnamese food is a Southeast Asian experience not to be missed.
Heavily linked to The Five Elements, or The Wuxing, the historical and philosophical influence on the foods of Vietnam make its cuisine one of the most fascinating in the world.
So fasten your seatbelt for a culinary experience like no other, as a native Vietnamese writer guides us through 17 of Vietnam’s most celebrated and delicious dishes.
1 – Phở – Pho
Phở, or commonly known as Pho in some countries, is possibly the most famous dish Vietnam has to offer.
This delicious Vietnamese noodle soup is cooked in chicken, beef, or even vegetarian broth. The final product is a bowl of steaming hot rice noodle soup coupled with the meat of your choice and sprinkled with some parsley, onions, and green onions.
This combination creates a mouth-watering smell that makes diners want to immediately dive into their food.
Some places even serve cháo quẩy (Vietnamese fried breadsticks) with pho. When eaten with pho, the breadsticks add a unique crunchiness to the soup.
If you ever go to Vietnam, you must try out this internationally famous noodle soup.
2 – Cá Kho Tộ – Caramelized and Braised Catfish
If you watch Master Chef, you might remember Christine Ha, a blind Vietnamese American contestant. She chose this delicious caramelized and braised catfish for her audition and the judges loved it.
For this dish, the catfish is often cooked in fish sauce, a popular Vietnamese sauce. It is then caramelized by adding sugar.
Sprinkled with some black pepper, green onions, and red pepper, this savory dish goes perfectly with white rice.
While Cá kho tộ is often cooked in a clay pot (the word “tộ” refers to the clay pot), it can also be cooked in a pan. This delicious dish is considered comfort food in Vietnam, so don’t forget to try it if you have the chance.
3 – Bánh Xèo – Vietnamese Crepe
You know a dish is good when it’s referred to as a country’s crepe.
You can also think of bánh xèo as Vietnamese taco. Similar to a taco, it has a crispy outer layer made by pouring rice batter combined with turmeric powder into a hot pan or skillet.
The batter often makes a loud sizzling sound, which gives the dish the name “xèo”, or “sizzling” in English.
The turmeric powder gives the outer layer a pleasant yellow color.
It is then stuffed with pork belly, bean sprouts, mung beans, and shrimp.
Diners can take this delicious combination, roll it up in a lettuce leaf with some vegetables, and dip it in the sauce.
The sauce is essentially watered down fish sauce mixed with garlic and red pepper.
Who would want to resist a combination of crispy rice batter, chewy pork belly, and healthy vegetables?
4 – Bánh Khọt – Mini Vietnamese Crispy Pancakes
Mini crispy pancakes, doesn’t that sound yummy? These mini pancakes are also very crispy, so be prepared for the crunch.
You can think of bánh khọt as a similar but mini version of bánh xèo.
To make these mini pancakes, a mold is necessary to shape them into tiny bowls.
The rice batter mixed with turmeric powder and green onions is fried up in these molds.
Shrimp, mung beans, and pork belly are then added to the top. When finished, these mini pancakes are wrapped in lettuce and vegetables and dipped in fish sauce mixed with garlic and red pepper, just like bánh xèo.
Many Vietnamese love this dish, so don’t be afraid to give it a try.
5 – Gỏi Sứa – Jellyfish Salad
Have you ever wondered what jellyfish taste like? Wonder no more because jellyfish salad exists.
This amazing appetizer or side dish is healthy, chewy, and simply delicious.
While some people might hesitate to try this dish because the jellyfish is raw, it is rewarding for those who dare to try it.
The jellyfish is often cut into bite-sized strips and mixed with vegetables, sometimes even shredded green mangoes.
The sauce, which is made of fish sauce, lemon or lime juice, red pepper, and sugar, is mixed directly into the salad.
Do you think you’re brave enough to try this amazing salad?
6 – Cao Lầu – Cao Lau Noodles
Hội An, the city this dish is associated with, is one of the famous tourism locations in Vietnam.
Cao lầu is well-liked by Vietnamese and foreigners alike because of the combination of flavors it offers.
The chewiness of rice noodles, the savory taste of the pork, the crunchiness of fried tofu and pigskin, the pungency of fish mint, the sweetness of the sauce, and the freshness of bean sprouts and other vegetables all blend together perfectly in your bowl.
The good news is that wonderful dish is also fairly affordable, typically ranging from only $2.5 to $4 per bowl.
7 – Bánh Mì – Vietnamese Baguette
Vietnamese baguette is often thought of as street food because it can be easily made and sold by small food carts or vendors on the streets of Vietnam.
If you order this baguette from a food cart, you will be surprised at how fast it is put together.
Depending on what you order, there can be a variety of different fillings for a baguette, ranging from Vietnamese ham, BBQ pork, to fried eggs.
Most of the time fermented vegetables, parsley, green onions, a few dashes of soy sauce, and maybe a few slices of red pepper are added.
Fast, delicious, convenient, and popular, the Vietnamese baguette is the go-to food for some Vietnamese who have little time to eat.
8 – Phở Cuốn – Vietnamese Rolled Noodles or Rolled Pho
If you ever go to Hà Nội, the capital of Vietnam, you must try these rolled noodles.
Marinated beef is cut into thin slices then fried up, creating a wonderful savory taste. Bean sprouts are also added to the beef until softened. The delicious beef and bean sprouts are combined with rice noodles and vegetables, then rolled up in rice paper or tapioca paper.
One must commend the smart combination of carb, meat, and vegetables in one small roll.
Depending on how many rolls you eat, this dish can either be a snack or a full meal. Chances are you will want to order seconds after tasting these rolls.
9 – Bột Chiên – Fried Rice Flour Cake with Eggs
Another beloved street food, bột chiên is often sold by small street vendors or restaurants.
The rice batter is divided into small rectangles and fried until yellow and crispy. Eggs are then added to these cute flour cakes and fried until thoroughly cooked.
Most people add a variety of vegetables to this crispy fried rice flour cake; some even add shredded green papayas for extra crunchiness and a mildly sour taste.
It’s recommended that you enjoy this fried rice flour cake with a drizzle of sweet chili sauce.
Don’t feel like eating healthy food today? Simply leave out the vegetables and just eat the crispy flour cake and eggs.
10 – Cơm Tấm – Vietnamese Broken Rice
Grilled or caramelized pork chops, a sunny side up egg, a few slices of cucumber and tomato, a steamed egg cake, steaming hot broken white rice, and of course a small bowl of fish sauce combined with garlic and red pepper slices are all ingredients for a plate of broken rice.
Broken rice is a popular dish in Ho Chi Minh city due to its deliciousness, fillingness, and convenience.
Why is it called broken rice? Well, the rice used for this dish is often broken grains left over after the process of drying and milling rice is over. While it essentially is just normal white rice, the grains are smaller, thus the name “broken rice”.
11 – Xôi Xiêm (Sầu Riêng) – Durian Sticky Rice
Have you ever tried durian? Now, have you ever tried durian with sticky rice?
This is a unique dish due to its combination of the savory sticky rice and the sweet durian. After all, who wants to eat fruit with rice? Well, you might want to think again when it comes to this dish.
Xôi xiêm is so rich and well-blended you’ll most likely want to try it again.
The sticky is rice is cooked with pandan leaves, giving it a pleasant smell.
When it’s thoroughly cooked, the rice is coated with mung beans and coconut cream mixed with eggs and durian, giving it a richness and sweetness that is simply one-of-a-kind.
12 – Gỏi Cá Mai – Vietnamese Raw Fish Roll
Have you ever imagined sushi as a Vietnamese salad? Because this dish is practically just that.
Cá mai, a kind of fish that’s just about the size of your pinky, is the main ingredient of this dish. Similar to jellyfish salad, these small fish are served raw. Thus, the cook must pick fresh, live fish for this salad.
After the fish are descaled and deboned, they’re marinated in vinegar or lime juice.
They are then wrapped in rice paper sheets with vegetables and ready to be dipped in sauce. Ginger, red peppers, fish sauce, roasted peanuts, garlic, and sugar make up the sauce that goes with the salad.
The sourness, sweetness, and freshness of gỏi cá mai make it a must-try.
13 – Bánh Căn – Mini Pancakes
Remember bánh khọt in recommendation #4? Well, if bánh khọt are fried, bánh căn are grilled on coal and have a wider variety of different fillings.
To make bánh căn, the cook must have a clay mold to grill them in. Similar to bánh khọt, rice batter is used to make these mini pancakes.
Depending on your preference, the filling can consist of shrimp, pork, squid, or meatballs.
The finished pancakes are often served with shredded green mangos or papayas.
And, similar to many of the previous recommendations, fish sauce mixed with garlic and red pepper is often an essential component of this dish.
14 – Mì Quảng – Quang-Style Noodles
Mì Quảng is quite difficult to make, but it is worth it! This dish is named after the province it came from, Quảng Nam.
Interestingly, the broth for this noodle dish is added last and there is relatively little of it. However, the broth is the key to how delicious mì Quảng is as the bone broth is simmered for hours with fish sauce, garlic, turmeric, black pepper, and other seasonings.
The unique rice noodles are thicker, chewier, and even tastier than pho noodles.
Peanuts and vegetables are sprinkled on top of the noodles, including basil, parsley, lettuce, and mint. If you’re lucky, some places will even have banana flowers!
15 – Cà Phê Trứng – Vietnamese Egg Coffee
Sounds gross? Who would want to combine egg and coffee? But you won’t regret your decision to try this unique coffee. Worry not, it’s not scrambled eggs in your coffee.
Egg coffee is made by beating an egg yolk until it turns fluffy, airy, and creamy. The coffee of your choice is then poured into the cup, though most people choose espresso.
Finally, sweetened condensed milk is added. Some places beat the egg yolk and condensed milk together then pour the combination on top of the coffee. Either way, this unique coffee is a drink you don’t want to skip.
16 – Chè Sâm Bổ Lượng – Chinese Ching Po Leung
Let’s move onto desserts. If you want desserts that aren’t overwhelmingly sweet or rich and are semi-healthy, this dessert is for you.
There is a variety of ingredients to be included in ching po leung, so there is no absolute right way to make it. However, most of the time, this iced dessert includes sliced seaweed or kelp, lotus seeds, longans, and red jujubes.
For those who have trouble sleeping, lotus seeds are known to help people get better sleep, so you might want a bowl of chè sâm bổ lượng with extra lotus seeds before you go to sleep.
17 – Chè Thái – Thailand Fruit Cocktail
“Thái” refers to Thailand in Vietnamese in this context (it also means “to chop” or “to mince”) because this is the country where this fruity dessert came from.
While it’s called a “cocktail”, there is absolutely no alcohol in it, so feel free to try it without worrying about getting drunk.
While some places will use canned fruits, many places that sell chè thái in Vietnam use fresh fruits. Lychees, jackfruit slices, green jelly, palm’s seeds, and sometimes longans are included.
This assortment is served in sweetened coconut milk, so enjoy the richness of the dessert while munching on tropical fruits!
Vietnamese Food Summary
I’m sure we can all agree that Vietnamese food touches more than the stomach. The colors, textures, and sensual elements make the cuisine an all-encompassing experience.
Vietnamese people associate their foods with The Five Elements of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water.
The thought and process that goes into Vietnamese cooking, therefore, is truly astounding.
Vietnamese believe all foods are connected, in some way, to one or more of the elements. Salt, a prime example, is seen as the connection between the living and the dead.
Hence, Vietnamese cooking is a delicate balance of just the right amount of each ingredient and temperature.
Food, therefore, is a very important part of Vietnamese culture. And more so than bringing family and friends together, the foods have significant meaning.
With so many fresh ingredients used in Vietnamese cooking, the foods of Vietnam are also seen as some of the healthiest in the world.
You could spend a lifetime exploring and trying Vietnamese food, and still not experience it all. There’s wonder by the bucket load to discover.
Whether you’re a passionate foodie traveler, or love to try different cuisines at home, the foods of Vietnam you simply have to try.
So, one final time, here’s the full list of all Vietnamese foods covered in this article for reference.
Be sure to have this list of Vietnamese food handy when you visit so that you can try one or more of these popular and traditional foods.
- Phở – Pho
- Cá Kho Tộ – Caramelized and Braised Catfish
- Bánh Xèo – Vietnamese Crepe
- Bánh Khọt – Mini Vietnamese Crispy Pancakes
- Gỏi Sứa – Jellyfish Salad
- Cao Lầu – Cao Lau Noodles
- Bánh Mì – Vietnamese Baguette
- Phở Cuốn – Vietnamese Rolled Noodles or Rolled Pho
- Bột Chiên – Fried Rice Flour Cake with Eggs
- Cơm Tấm – Vietnamese Broken Rice
- Xôi Xiêm (sầu riêng) – Durian Sticky Rice
- Gỏi Cá Mai – Vietnamese Raw Fish Roll
- Bánh Căn – Mini Pancakes
- Mì Quảng – Quang-Style Noodles
- Cà Phê Trứng – Vietnamese Egg Coffee
- Chè Sâm Bổ Lượng – Chinese Ching Po Leung
- Chè Thái – Thailand Fruit Cocktail
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Contributor: Jennifer Bui is a US-based Vietnamese content creator, who writes on a range of both technical and creative topics. She is passionate about Vietnamese cuisine and culture and is keen to share more of it with the world through her writing.
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